Physicists are playful people. They like a good joke and a rib, although some may not admit it. When I worked for the University of Arizona Physics Department, some of the loudest laughter in the building could be found coming from professors’ offices. An academic might be sharing a humorous account of a data mistake or a lab goof with his or her post doc or grad student (“and this is where I wrote > instead of <, thus condemning us all to a world without gravity!”) and a big belly chortle could be heard from down the hall.
Rarely did I hear any physics professors screaming, although like all humans, they probably did. I myself occasionally yelled while in my office and sometimes it got so loud people banged on the door to find out if I was in peril or having a nervous breakdown. One time in particular, I was typing a cold email to a scientist who I knew could be a very important contact for me and the department. But I was having writer’s block and I couldn’t find the words to pen even what seemed to be the simplest of intro letters.
Now before I go on, I know what you’re thinking – Alaina had writer’s block? What? How could that be? I know it’s quite astounding to conceptualize, but I too, dear readers am human, and sometimes encounter this devilish drag. Sitting there vacant of words, I decided to abandon my efforts for the time being and come back to it later. But unfortunately, instead of saving the email as a draft, I accidentally clicked “send” and suddenly my half-finished email, that precariously ended in the middle of a word, was hurtling through time and space to a person whom I had never met and on whom I wanted to make the most excellent of first impressions.
So naturally, I did what any human, adult, professional would do. I banged my desk as hard as I could with both fists and screamed at the top of my lungs a beastly word that rhymes with the layman’s term for a creature in the Genus Anas. The next thing I knew I heard someone knocking at my door, calling out to see if I was ok. “Just fine!” I countered, with a jolly and fake laugh, and then turned back to my computer grumbling like a child to myself, contemplating how I was going to get out of this mess.
I decided to take the path of least resistance and use my mistake to my advantage. Instead of retreating to the Van De Graaff Accelerator Lab in the basement (which would have absorbed all the curses I could have shouted), I telephoned the scientist directly. His assistant answered and of course asked who I was. I told her my name and affiliation and explained with a genuine giggle that I was the person who had just accidentally emailed her boss a half-written letter, and I wanted to apologize for my error. Surprisingly, she put me right through to the scholar, who, upon hearing my explanation, expressed humor at this most human of gaffes. We hit it off right away and he was able to help me with my query. After we finished our call, I dashed off a hand-written (and completed) thank you note, referencing our strange way of making each other’s acquaintance. We stayed in touch and he turned out to be a very helpful contact.
This was not to be the last of my blunders. No, friends, there were many more times I would screech, punch my desk or the walls, curse, and then laugh about it all. And there would be many times I would witness physics professors behaving in similar ways. But what’s earth shattering about that? Physicists are human too, after all.
By Alaina Levine